Pope Francis overlooking the square

Pope Francis, Decriminalization of Homosexuality, and the Question of “Sin”

Published by The Body on 31 January 2023

The Anglosphere has a blind belief in its own moral superiority. We are scarcely aware of how slow our own countries have been to decriminalize homosexual acts between males. For example: Decriminalization came to the U.K. as recently as 1967, though the age of consent remained higher for gay people than their straight siblings until 2000. The U.S. decriminalized same-gender sex acts in 2003, though many individual states had already decriminalized before then. Tasmania was the last Australian state to decriminalize in 1997, completing a process begun by South Australia in 1975.

Sixty-something countries still criminalize homosexuality today, of which nearly half are in Africa. In some 70% of all those countries, homosexuality was first penalized under British colonial rule, while in the others, the criminalization is at the behest of Islam. In some Islamic countries, the death penalty for homosexuality still stands. When India removed Indian Penal Code Section 377—written by the British—from its statute book in 2018, a quarter of humanity suddenly found itself living in a country where homosexual acts were no longer criminal.

So why should it matter what the Pope has to say about criminal laws whose survival has principally been wrought by groups that were either the bearers of another form of Christianity, or of another religion altogether? Homosexual acts have not been criminal in most of the countries colonized by majority Catholic powers for a very long time (despite occasional violent reintroduction of regressive laws by military dictators). In some cases, notably France’s colonies, they were never criminalized. Many Latin American countries decriminalized shortly after independence in the 19th century: for instance, Argentina in 1887 and Brazil in 1830. Italy’s 1890 decriminalization of homosexual acts included the Vatican City State (just as well).

Yet local LGBT activists (Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and secular) in African countries and elsewhere have repeatedly requested the Pope to speak publicly on the matter of decriminalization. Why? Because although Catholicism is not the majority form of Christianity in many of those countries, Catholic bishops have been very easily sucked into the neocolonial drive, backed by big U.S. evangelical money, to fight against decriminalization or actively to fight for increased criminalization of homosexual acts. As a rule, Anglican bishops in those countries are more influential (and more homophobic) than their Catholic counterparts.

Nevertheless, it would still be significant if the worldwide leader of a major religion were to make clear, especially to the local hierarchies, that if they support criminalization, they do so against the teaching of the Catholic Church. Making, or keeping, LGBT persons criminal would not be an acceptable reason for joint ecumenical, or joint interreligious, ventures.

And so it has come to pass. Shortly before a planned trip to Africa―in an interview with the Associated Press―the Pope finally came out unambiguously against the criminalization of homosexual acts anywhere in the world. Something greatly to be celebrated. But the declaration did not come about without a fuss, thanks to the Pope’s conversational style.

Because of the difficulty of transcribing his words―which were delivered in Spanish―much of the press coverage gave the impression that “the Pope says that homosexuality is not a crime but it is a sin.” Now of course, no one was expecting the Pope suddenly to remove the sinfulness traditionally attributed to same-sex acts. But what he said was presented as if he were making two equally strong affirmations—one about criminality, and another about sinfulness. And, reasonably enough, a lot of us LGBT people and our allies were upset about this.

However, close examination of the actual statement showed that his expression, “But it’s a sin,” was put into the mouth of an imagined objector to decriminalization. One to whom the Pope then explained that, well, we’re all sinners, so no good judging anybody else―but the important thing is that homosexuality is not a crime, it’s a human condition.

In other words, he was not emphasizing the “sinfulness” but pointing out how it is shared by everybody, and that in any case, it’s no excuse for criminalizing people. Needless to say, the apparent confusion was taken by rigid Catholics, opposed to Francis, as a way of emphasizing “homosexual sinfulness” to beat up on more mainstream Catholics, who (as polls show) long for an entirely different approach to LGBT people; and differently on the other side, by some progressives who are, often with very good reason, resentful at the Church and just wish it would go away all together and stop “pretending to be nice.” For them, the Pope apparently emphasizing the sinfulness just helped “reveal the bigot beneath the smile.”

After a couple of days of confusion, Francis sent a handwritten letter of clarification to Jesuit Priest Jim Martin―who is easily the most widely read, gay-friendly Catholic “influencer” in the blogosphere. His point, Francis said, was to insist on decriminalization. And of course, as Pope, he upholds the normal teaching about the sinfulness of sexual acts outside marriage (irrespective of orientation), with all the usual caveats that are necessary concerning different circumstances, and occasions when there may be no culpability at all―but chief among all of this was that none of this justifies criminalization.

I’m a Catholic priest and theologian who is also an openly gay man. I have been quite public in my critique of the Church’s current teaching on homosexuality over the years, and I long for it to take on board what we now know to be true about LGBT people. My perspective on these events is that we should “take the win” in two senses. The first is the obvious one: For the first time, the leader of one of the world’s major religious groups has made it clear that whatever one may think of the sinfulness of homosexual acts, none of this justifies criminalizing them.

Secondly, and less obviously, he bent over backwards, as far as he could, to point out that any sinfulness involved is the same as that of all of us, and certainly not something to be pointed at as characterizing an “out group.” In this, he is entirely different in tone from many of the U.S. Catholic bishops, who seem obsessed with this issue. For reasons that Freud explains, no doubt.

We still have a long way to go. Catholic moral teaching in this area was devised in the second century and doesn’t derive from either Jesus, St. Paul, or the Hebrew Scriptures. It concluded that the only non-sinful form of sexual activity was that between spouses when the act is intended for procreation. Preferably without pleasure. The principle has remained unchanged, despite everything we have learned about human biology, ever since. Within the past century, however, there has been less denigration of pleasure, and a higher positive appraisal of sex bringing the couple together—just as long as they don’t try to impede procreation!

That teaching is clearly not fit for purpose, and the vast majority of straight couples have no compunction about choosing when their lovemaking should have a chance at being procreative and when it shouldn’t. So, scarcely different from same-sex couples, whose lovemaking doesn’t make babies, most of the time.

However, the whole of that second-century scheme had turned LGBT people into “defective heterosexuals,” since not only does our lovemaking not produce babies, but our whole pattern of desire doesn’t appear to be ordered to that end. So our acts were described as “intrinsically disordered”—meaning, ordered away from their “proper end.” And our pattern of desire for people of the same sex was described as “objectively disordered”—since ordered away from the sexual object with whom we might have procreative sex.

For many centuries, it was assumed that we were in some way pathological or vice-ridden. It was only in the late 19th century that it began to be understood that we “just are this way.” And not until the 1950s did it become clear to the medical profession that there is no pathology intrinsic to our sexual orientation.

In other words, we are not objectively disordered straight people. Rather, we are the bearers of a regularly occurring non-pathological minority variant in the human condition. Something much more analogous to left-handedness than, say, to anorexia.

In the Anglosphere, decriminalization often followed the medical perception that being LGBT is no pathology. And in the years following decriminalization, the normality, and even banality, of the fact of homosexuality has become ever more obvious―and the notion that “there is something wrong with gays” ever less tenable.

And, of course, if the “non-pathological minority variant” description is true, strict Catholic theology would insist that there is a “for something,” a promise of flourishing, available to us starting from who we are, not despite who we are: We were created out of love, and by and for love. And who we are cannot be determined negatively by deduction from a supposed universal heterosexuality.

Most of us, of course, know this anyhow. We can distinguish between sex that builds each other up and sex in which we are using or humiliating each other. And we can begin to imagine life projects built on love of the former sort. Sin will have its “rightful” place in our lives as that which can get in the way of our becoming who we are called to be, and for which we can be forgiven on our way back into that becoming. We can properly distinguish between things that are serious and things that are silly. Just like everyone else.

I’ve been at this coalface for 35 years, and if you’d told me 15 years ago that we’d be as near as we are now to all of this becoming common sense in the Catholic Church, I would have wanted to know what hallucinogen you were on. But, in fact, as I hope the discussion around the Pope’s calling for decriminalization shows, we’re catching up faster than I could have possibly imagined.